Next steps on the road to reignite Adult Education in New Zealand.

Over the past 5 years Chalkle has been testing new ways of using business models and technology to enable more Adult Education to happen in New Zealand. As co-founders and business owners we are moving on from working in this area.

This post was written collaboratively with Chalkle co-founder Silvia Zuur and has 2 parts. It is intended to be an open contribution to anyone who is working to support adult education and life long learning in our society.

Part 1 is a an overview of the markets and solutions we pursued over 5 years.

Part 2 surmises our key learnings and recommendations with an invitation for others to connect with us and move our work forwards.


PART ONE: FIVE YEARS IN THE BUSINESS OF LEARNING.

Why Chalkle?

How do we enable more lifelong learning in our society?

This was the question that we asked at the beginning of our work founding Chalkle and it is a question that we are still asking. This question lies at the heart of our motivation to work on Chalkle. It was the reason we initially chose to start a company to tackle the issue. It points toward a desire to ensure a healthy functioning society which we believe needs to have accessible, connected learning opportunities for everyone. As adults, lifelong learning is important for three broad reasons:

  • Lifelong learning for the economy. As professionals we need to learn to cope with an uncertain future where jobs can and will disappear and new industries will pop up. We need significant cultural infrastructure to be able to keep up with a global economy. As workers we need to side skill, step up, retrain, and remain productive when landscapes and industries change. The age of ‘one career for life’ is over. We are seeing the rise of project based careers where people may change their skillsets multiple times, retraining and learning new skills as they go.
  • Lifelong learning for community. Real world opportunities for face-to-face learning, sharing skills and connecting with people builds our social fabric and communities. This needs to complement the current focus of “getting online”. We know that stronger communities have positive systemic benefits that go well beyond the education itself. Strong social fabric can reduce crime rates, and improve individual well-being and community resilience in disasters.
  • Lifelong learning is human. We believe that at a fundamental level, we humans are curious and that curiosity is fed with lifelong learning. Our bodies and minds thrive when we are learning and sharing what we know — and we are living longer than ever before, so for a healthy society we all need to keep learning, particularly as adults, through our whole lives. Learning cannot stop when we leave school or university and opportunities to learn must be accessible for all areas of society.

Basically, we think lifelong learning is critical for the adaptability of our economy, the connectedness of our communities and the social health of all of us as human being in today’s society.

The slipping slope in New Zealand.

In 2009 the National government dramatically cut funding to evening and weekend adult education in New Zealand. In 2009 153,746 students attended evening or weekend classes in New Zealand, by 2013 this number had dropped to 22,503 and the vast majority (over 90%) of the schools and organisations delivering classes shut their doors.

This is significant.

Simply put, when the central government funding was cut the entire adult community education system all but collapsed.

There have been (and continue to be) amazing champions who have kept small communities of learning alive in a few pockets of the country with very little funding, mostly by volunteering. Amazing as this effort is, it does not extend far enough to fill the need or solve the overall problem we now face.

Beyond the politics of the situation it is clear that, at a systemic level, the old night schools model was not financially sustainable or resilient enough to survive the funding cuts. We do not believe that waiting for political will to return to fund the old model is a viable solution.

No ‘new model’ to support adult education has emerged. It was this challenge that sparked the initial flame of Chalkle back in the winter of 2012. It is this challenge that we as a nation are yet to solve.

A business to solve a social problem.

The Enspiral network was founded to bring more energy into solving the greatest problems of our time, and to enable more people to draw a livelihood solving the problems that matter most to them.

Within that context Chalkle was founded as an Enspiral venture. We opened a limited liability company with the intent to create a financially sustainable solution that leveraged the opportunities in adult education. We choose business structure so it would enable to us to be flexible with capital and investment further down the line, recognising the short term loss of being able to take charity and community funding.

2012–2014. Chalkle 1.0: The heartbeat of a learning community

The first two years of Chalkle were a mammoth effort of community organising. Chalkle, then led by original founders Silvia Zuur and Linc Gasking used the web platform meetup.com to build a thriving community of learners and teachers in Wellington. We facilitated, organised and supported a community where ‘anyone could teach’ things that they were passionate about. We held the heartbeat of the community and the accountability of organising and promoting the classes.

Core discoveries.

1. The demand exists.

The demand for this type of social learning exists. We ran over 600 new classes in one year in Wellington alone. We filled up classes with learners on topics as diverse as ‘how to buy a home’, ‘how to build a longbow’, ‘how to do zombie makeup’ and ‘how to raise capital for a new business’. Awards came in, articles were written — it felt like people knew we were trying something new and were onto something.

2. The community had a great time. The organisers burnt out.

The first year of Chalkle was a great learning exercise. We built our community education muscle very fast. We had direct experience of running classes and building a learning community. But we also directly experienced the issue we were to discover is systemic across New Zealand — the community had a great time but the core organisers and teachers were under resourced.

As we reached out to other communities across New Zealand (and as they reached out with interest to us to ‘bring Chalkle’ to them) it was important to us that we could share a viable model to support a healthy community that did not rely on volunteering or organisers over extending themselves.

3. The economics of running classes are tough — but possible.

Running classes that are accessible in our communities means finding a way to pay for a local, basic administration, promotion and a teacher. The economics are tough. Community education isn’t a market that attracts aspiring millionaires or moguls.

With Chalkle 1.0 we stretched ourselves to manage a simple financial model that barely broke even, but did stay afloat. With a bit more support we know it’s possible. As community organisers the main barriers we faced were administrative and operational costs (managing payments, learner administration, marketing classes).

600 classes later….

As we progressed and the name ‘Chalkle’ grew we received more interest and requests from around New Zealand to ‘bring Chalkle to our community’. The Wellington community was humming, but we were in a financially unstable situation and at the same time we were being asked to set up in other communities. We did not want to expand the Chalkle community into other areas to ‘take over’ community education or scale a model that would wear out people and fade away.

As a business, the questions we were exploring in the market were:

  • Can an effective ‘user pays’ model work for enabling adult education without a need for external public funding?
  • Can we turn this community initiative in a self reliant social enterprise that supports other communities?

After more than a year of running over 600 classes we thought the answer was yes, but only if we could reduce the administration time and increase the marketing reach. Being surrounded by supportive software developers in the Enspiral community, a platform called chalkle.com was dreamt up….

2014–2016: Chalkle 2.0: The tools and systems that enable learning communities

After nearly 2 years of running classes and building one community (in Wellington) we wanted to allow other communities to ‘run Chalkle’ in their own areas and we wanted to build a scalable business model.

We threw all our energy into solving our own administrative problems to try and scale the impact of Chalkle using software and systems.

The right tools can help.

We used the experience of running the Chalkle learning community (with around 50 teachers and 2000 learners) to build software that would enable others to do it more easily than we did.

Through the experience of hitting our own administrative issues and the limitations of existing solutions we built a community events platform that manages all payments, receipts, reminders, refunds, tax advice, automates the learner administration and helps profile teachers, organisations and promote the classes.

We borrowed money, built a team with the right technology skills and started building new partnerships. Our goal was never to become a software company (although it sure ended up looking that way!). Our goal was to radically improve the economics and cost model to support others who were driving their own learning communities.

In short, Chalkle.com was born with a ‘simple’ mission:

Give anyone who wants to start an adult learning business everything they need to succeed.

Tactics we tried.

Building ambitious technology startups like this, with inexperienced founders, challenging economics and difficulty accessing funding, is never easy. As business owners our list of challenges, mistakes and learnings from Chalkle is a blog post (or a book!) in itself. During this phase we explored several business models and directions.

1. Social franchise

Chalkle began as one learning community. When we achieved a level of success we had requests to ‘bring Chalkle to our area’. To service this we initially set up Chalkle as a Social Franchise and explored selling licences to communities. We sold one, in partnership with Te Takere Library in Levin. However we learned that a business model that forces large financial barriers to new communities starting and Chalkle centralising control over all learning opportunities did not fit with our vision or intentions. We also recognised the demographic, cultural and behavioral differences in each community that meant a standardised franchise model would struggle to be relevant.

2. Libraries as a learning hub

When our first social franchise customer was a library we realised that libraries were also working through (and continue to work through) a time of reinvention. Borrowing books was so last century — perhaps they could be our perfect customer!? We visited almost every library in New Zealand — but none (bar one other) had the freedom (or budget) to innovate as the first one we worked with had. In short, libraries could not afford a social franchise contract and/or were unwilling to take the risk of a new model. We think libraries remain uniquely placed as fertile ground for physical learning hubs — however funding and staffing constraints mean extending their resources to new, untested initiatives is prohibitive.

3. Community champions

We were surprised how many people across the country had enthusiasm for supporting adult learning in their area. This problem certainly has the potential to spark the imagination and enthusiasm of many people!

As a result we placed a significant amount of effort trying to develop a business model that would generate ‘enough fat’ to fund a local “Chalkle Champion” to support teachers and kickstart a learning community in their area. We launched this in Waiheke Island, Nelson and Warkworth with willing volunteers who took a risk and wanted to give a new model a chance. Like so many businesses, the financial model worked on paper — running an untested model off volunteer steam was a risk that didn’t work for us.

Our local champions were truly heroes, and they represent such a critical part of providing accessible community education — but even heros have billed to pay eventually….

We still believe with the right focus and time it is possible to build and run a viable learning community — and the software we built certainly makes it easier.

4. A big shared platform

We opened chalkle.com as a big, wide public platform. We had assumed that organisations and teachers would want to share their brands on one platform so learners could find all classes and workshops in one place. A rising tide to float all boats.

Unfortunately we found the small providers and independent teachers (who tend to be unsustainable and sporadic in their offerings) liked this idea, but the larger more sustainable providers or organisations were not so keen to share brand space with others. Since opening 7,442 users and 242 educational providers and teachers have used the platform but the ‘everything for everyone’ approach did not work for enough providers to create a viable business model to support the team.

5. Always be learning programme

After a year of running the platform we realised that throwing technology at a community will also not get to the heart of the issue. Champions in our communities need more than just software to get learning communities off the ground. So, with some funding from UNESCO, we developed the “Always be Learning” Programme. This was a specially curated and developed programme aimed at empowering current community education providers. We successfully training and engaged 4 community providers from across the country but unfortunately this work began to replicate the exact issue we were trying to solve — the programme relied on external funding — and when we did not receive a second round of funding we could not continue the programme.

6. Free resources

When the ABL programme could not continue we recognised the value of the knowledge that we had in running classes and building learning communities — so we began investing time in building and sharing resources to ‘open source’ what we had learned along the way. The goal here was to help anyone anywhere to both use Chalkle, but also build a thriving learning community and run great classes anywhere. These resources remain open for others to use.

PART 2: Recommendations for moving adult education forward.

After five years of exploring many different strategies, as business owners we are moving on from Chalkle. In our work we did not manage to build Chalkle to reach sustainability or find an investable business model that would carry the concept far enough to get there.

We know we have some of the answer, but not enough of it.

With the clarity of the rear view mirror we can see some serious mistakes we made, opportunities we didn’t take, rabbit holes we jumped down and distractions we pursued. The underlying question we set out to work on remains as bright, and urgent to be solved as ever:

How do we enable more lifelong learning in our society?

Below are the 3 key learnings from our work and the 3 recommendations for progressing a viable adult education model in New Zealand. If you’re working in this space, interested in tackling these problems or wanting to connect further about how we maybe able to support each other to progress this work in New Zealand — please get in touch!

Three learnings from Chalkle.

These three key market learnings are the most relevant things we learned that point towards a better answer to this overall problem. Hopefully they can contribute to the thinking of others working on solutions in this same space.

1) User pays won’t support community.

We built Chalkle as a company to explore creating a self reliant business model, not an organisation reliant on funding grants or public funding. With this intent we’ve learned (the hard way) that the economics of supporting community education with a software platform within the New Zealand market does not stack up and support itself.

  • The business model of an accessible learning community, where the organiser is paid through a slice of ticket sales after paying for teachers, locations, operational costs and marketing is difficult — break event at best — and more realistically, needs some volunteering.

A model that pays an organiser may work if classes are $50, $150, $200 etc per learner. Unfortunately these do not support the community accessible classes that our society is missing.

  • The business model of the supporting platform that takes a small fee from ticket sales for managing the process does not provide the scale needed to continue to build and support the software or to support the business to operate effectively.

A platform model works if you have scale, highly priced classes or can take a significant cut — we were working off a model of $2/per person and 4% fee (after the credit card processing we received 1.25%). Considering that most class organisers had a focus on keeping their classes accessible they wanted to keep fees low which meant that the Chalkle fee was also sometimes a barrier.

2) Marketing and administration are the pain points.

Our goal with Chalkle was never to just build software. Our goal was to improve the economic model for the teachers and community organisers. By spending less time managing money and admin we hoped that organisers and teachers could spend more time building their communities and promoting and running classes.

  • Marketing and administration pain remains a significant issue holding back community organisers from organising adult classes with a financially sustainable model.

Through all of this journey we continued to hear the same problem we started with — running classes has too much administrative overhead and filling up the seats is too hard.

3) “Someone” needs to champion the champions.

We saw amazing people in communities across the country, from Nelson to Waiheke Island to Levin to Christchurch step forward ready to champion this work.

  • Software, resources and clear systems is a part of this solution but supporting the champions in each community requires financial support to establish each market.

With the right resources, tools and support these champions could be the beating hearts of thriving communities of learning across the country. They would be keen and capable of connecting with teachers and organising classes in their local communities and we believe they should be able to earn an income doing it.


Three recommendations from Chalkle.

These three recommendations reflect how we would proceed if we had the right mix of resources and people to continue the work.

1) Use partnerships to build a community owned business.

We believe a new model for community education needs to have diverse contributions and a structure that supports community ownership. Chalkle is currently held by a private limited liability company. We used this structure in an attempt to raise capital, build a team and get the system off the ground. We believe a more open approach could work better.

Recommendation: A community education intervention needs to be founded in partnership with both private and public partners, it needs to be owned by the community that runs it and it needs to continue to improve the business model with a medium to long term goal of generating surplus to reinvest back into the system.

Which partners? Ideally partners from across the public, community and business sectors who can help to promote, grow and connect the wider movement as the whole system grows!

2) Build and share public resources to support everyone who uses the platform.

Working with educators, you are constantly inspired by others sharing what they know for the benefit of others doing their work — from teachers sharing curriculums and resources, to community organisers sharing marketing and promotional tips and business models.

As part of our work we began to collate and build free and open resources intended to help community organisers and teachers interested in running adult education classes or courses to succeed.

Recommendation: If a platform were to become established we envisage community organisers and teachers would continue to grow this free resources library. Supporting this work would enable and encourage more organisers, more teachers and more supporters to get involved and everyone to learn from each other and improve the whole system.

3) Include the taxpayer as a founding partner to support local community organisers.

Recognising that the previous system of night / weekend schools was ‘unfundable’ politically and will not likely be fundable in the same way again. And recognising the learning from trying to do the opposite (a technology based, 100% user pays model) we believe a suitable middle ground could create a scalable, feasible model that is radically more effective in scaling than the previous night school model.

Recommendation: Public agencies motivated to build community resilience, deliver educational content, build adult literacy and support community well being and connection join as a partner and fund a baseline of income for community organisers to use the platform to drive accessibly priced classes in their communities.

Where next?

Over the next few weeks we will be closing our open booking platform — you will no longer be able to set up a provider page or use the booking system at chalkle.com

  • As co-founders, we are moving our work forwards with other organisations.
  • We have set up a consultancy, EXP, to continue to run educational and innovation programmes.
  • We continue to work as active members building the Enspiral network.
  • We are exploring creative usecases for the software we have built and we are open to using our learning to support others who are wanting to continue seeking solutions to our founding question.
How do we enable more lifelong learning in our society?

Be in touch if we can be of service.